Phula did not look tall enough for a twelve-year-old, but that was the age she went by. It had been decided for her much before she could remember. Her eyes had an unforgettable stare as they opened wide and looked startled at the sound of stern commands, harsh enough to cut across her ears. Even though she had grown up with these, and they were as familiar to her as the holes in the one pair of socks she kept for when she could not feel her feet in the cold, she could never get used to the increasing frequency of the sounds, and their total lack of concern for her situation.
Phula had just started working with the Acharya family. She looked around the house. It was not quite a house, but a flat above the ground floor. There were three bedrooms, a big kitchen, and a beautiful balcony with many tall potted plants. The squirrels and the pigeons raced around this leafy haven in an otherwise concrete landscape marked with stray dogs desperately guarding narrow alleyways. Like in other cities in India, there was no longer any room for people in Ludhiana, no room for piles of unwanted garbage.
Mrs. Acharya had spent some time going over the assigned tasks for the day. Phula would be helping in the kitchen, sweeping, mopping, ironing, and doing any other job that she could manage with little or no supervision. At night, she could sleep on the carpet in the living room. She would have to roll up her bedding each morning, and place it underneath one of the beds in the spare bedroom.
Phula loved the balcony, but found that she had no time to sit and enjoy the squirrels and the pigeons fighting over the bird feed. She used to iron there, but she was not tall enough to reach the table, and she knew all too well that even a small distraction could become dangerous and risky. Since the temperature control on the electric iron was broken, Phula had to focus a lot on her job to prevent expensive shirts and pants from burning.
She could sit in the balcony to have her meals, provided no one else was sitting there. The Acharyas had told her that, unlike other families, they had good values, and did not believe in caste discrimination. This was one of the main reasons why they had been quite willing to hire her. Their only requirement was that she eat from only one set of dishes, and sit only on the floor, never on a chair.
Phula well understood these house rules. They had been fairly common in many of the other homes of the families that had hired her. One of the “Bibi jis,” a school teacher, had even taught her how to write her own name. Unfortunately, like all the other jobs she had known, it did not last long. Phula had grown used to the frequent changes, moving from one place to another, never really becoming accustomed to any one particular home. It was just not meant to be.
The Acharya home was a neat one. There were no stairs, and no locks. Even the big, steel Godrej cupboard had a lock that never quite worked. Phula had noticed that the first time she had swept the floor in that room. The “Godrej” as it was called, had beautiful saris, petticoats and slim, fitting blouses. At one time, Phula had held the silk fabric against her neck and face, and enjoyed its softness. She had taken a speck of dark kohl from her eyes, kohl that she had made from the carbon residue of an old clay lamp, and applied it on the central fold of what she thought was the most expensive sari. She was warding off the evil eye. The beautiful sari would now be free from all demons, and would have its own little mote, a black stain on perfection!
One morning, the squirrels were crazily chasing one another around the potted plants, Phula could not stop following them with her eyes, even though her bucket of dirty water was sitting right in the centre of Bibi ji’s bedroom. The squirrels had now invited the pigeons, and the entire balcony was filled with animal sounds. The squirrels had thrown the earth from a planter all over the freshly mopped floor, but Phula couldn’t care less. She was fascinated.
There was that sound again! It was Bibi ji. She was probably complaining about the bucket and the half-mopped floor. Phula was not at all surprised. But this time, Bibi ji’s voice was shriller and more relentless. It was filled with so much anger that it brought tears to Phula’s eyes. She did not want to know what it might be. Perhaps it was a repeat of the same that had happened so many times before in other homes, when she had been forced to leave, and look for something else.
Bibi ji stormed into the balcony, and struck Phula across the face. Before Phula could pull herself together, there came another blow, this time across the head. And all the while, Bibi ji uttered the most brutal words that she could find in her vocabulary. Phula knew these words well, but they seemed foreign when they came from Bibi ji. It was like a strange language that Bibi ji seemed to have kept just to use on Phula or others like her.
Bibi ji ordered Phula to open her small suitcase, and take out everything from it. There was the salwar kameez, an outfit that Bibi ji had given her to wear when guests were around. There were underwear, and a pair of socks for colder weather. Phula was asked to take her socks inside out, which she did. Out came a set of five flat stones that Phula used for gittas, a game that she had learned to play by herself with the help of an imaginary opponent.
Bibi ji ordered her to take off her clothes. Phula began to cry, and resisted; but Bibi ji would not let go of her. First, the kameez came off, and then the salwar. By now, Phula was yelling. She held on to her salwar desperately, almost as though it were her very last possession. Bibi ji felt the salwar all over, looking for anything hidden in its many folds. She felt the seams, and suddenly, there it was, tied inside the naala or the tape that held the salwar together. There was a shining silver ring taken from inside the small cabinet of the Godrej.
Phula felt one last stinging blow on her face. She knew she would have to leave the squirrels. She realized she was in the Acharya home, half-naked, waiting for the next blow. But soon, it would be over, and there would be another home. She took one look at what she was going to leave, and said to herself that it had not been bad until then. She was as ready as she could be.